Queen Anne by Helen Edmundson
(Portrait of Queen Anne by Michael Dahl, 1705, Image taken from Wikipedia)
And I’m back! I’m going to try to do more of this in 2019.
Why I Decided To Read It: I actually learned about Queen Anne (the person, not the play) in my Tudor/Stewart England class in college. I thought she was fascinating, especially her relationship with Sarah Churchill. I found this play in an Amazon rabbit hole a while ago and I thought “Awesome, I’m totally interested in this story!”. I only committed to reading it (though I have been meaning to for a while) after seeing The Favourite. I was excited to see the film for the same reason I was excited to read this play. I didn’t care for The Favourite. While the performances are fantastic, especially Olivia Colman as Queen Anne, there are many things I had difficulty with. I know historical accuracy wasn’t the filmmakers’ main concern, but it’s unfortunate that most people don’t know about this time period. So, I wanted to get another view of this story by reading this play.
Summary: It’s the early 18th Century in England and there is troubling brewing. The Stuart reign is coming to an end. There is a fear that a Catholic upriser is planning in France. The last of the Stuart line, Princess Anne, is shy and easily led by advisors, especially friend Sarah Churchill. Sarah Churchill is vivacious, beautiful, and shrewdly political. Anne and Sarah have differing opinions on politics, but Sarah usually gets her way. When her brother-in-law unexpectedly dies, Anne becomes Queen or England sooner than expected. As decisions have to be made, Queen Anne has to decide to listen to her oldest friends or listen to her own instincts.
Thoughts and Analysis: I liked this play even more than the previous Helen Edmundson play I read, Mary Shelley.
This is what I wanted out of a Queen Anne story. Not only does it cover the relationships between the characters, but it also covers more of what Queen Anne’s reign was like and how it affected her relationships. She wasn’t entirely worthless. During her monarchy, Scotland joined England to become Great Britain. This was a reign where there wasn’t a lot of difficulty between monarch and parliament (and if you consider most of the Stuart dynasty, that says a lot). She had her own opinions on matters of state and she eventually grew into her powers as Queen.
This story is about power. It appears in a few different ways. Like any political story, everyone is playing a game for power. Queen Anne should have it, but people use her lack of confidence, her illnesses, and her gender against her. Sarah Churchill, her husband, and their allies constantly jockey for more influence. The fights between the Tories and the Whigs often get ugly. It’s hard not to see the ugliness in the politics of the play in use today. We still have people who insincerely flatter and/or bully their way to the top. People still present false information as the truth.
The main power struggle is between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill. It doesn’t start as a power struggle- both seem content in their roles. Anne is extremely reliant on Sarah tell her what to do. However, once Anne suddenly becomes the queen, things change. Sarah pushes more and more and is around less and less. Queen Anne sees this as disrespectful and is hurt by this. Their friendship is broken when Sarah takes a step too far and blackmails her. In the last moments, a broken, stubborn Sarah gives a defiant monologue. It seems pathetic in the moment, but Sarah Churchill’s memoirs defined Queen Anne’s reign for hundreds of years. It wasn’t positive. Only in the past couple decades are we re-evaluating Queen Anne’s reign.
There are flaws. I wish Abigail Hill was a bit more a present character. She’s there and she’s involved, but this is definitely Anne and Sarah’s story. There is a bit of expository dumping. Given this isn’t a well-known time period, it’s understandable. The time between England’s Civil War and the American Revolution is a bit hazy for most people. It does ruin some of the flow a bit. Some expository information or commentary is given in song form, which is fun.
Favorite Character: Queen Anne has the best character arch. She starts very timid and easily wavered and, honestly, pathetic. By the end, she is standing for herself. I cannot express how uncommon it is to have this character arch for a woman. Also, she a plus-sized woman! (Note- I am a plus-sized woman and especially care.) Sarah Churchill is obviously a showier role- an excellent role- but I appreciated Queen Anne’s arch more.
Should You Read This?: Sure! Especially if you’re interested in English history, history, women-led stories, and women playwrights. Or if you’ve seen The Favourite and want a different version of the same story.
Final Thoughts: I think this is a great version of a lesser-known story in history.